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What happens during alcohol or drug detox?

When someone is addicted to alcohol or drugs, they will often need to go through a detoxification (detox) process, an essential first step in their recovery from addiction.

Detox is based on the principle that one who is physically unwell will struggle to tackle any underlying mental health problems. Therefore, the purpose of detox is to tackle the physical side of addiction as a first step so that patients are prepared to address the psychological features of their addiction as part of an intensive addiction rehab program.

What is detox?

Detox is when all traces of alcohol and drugs are removed from the body, ensuring that a person is physically stable and ready to start therapy.

Alcohol or drug addiction results in people's bodies becoming used to having these substances in their system. When these substances are gradually reduced and removed during detox, the brain will adjust to the sudden drop in these chemicals. This typically causes people to experience a set of unpleasant symptoms known as 'withdrawal symptoms.

The detox process aims to minimize the negative impact of withdrawal symptoms and make the experience as safe and comfortable as possible. The most effective form of detox is medically assisted and supported by trained specialists. This usually happens within a specialist detox center or facility, under the care of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Attempting to detox on your own is rarely successful, and people will likely experience unnecessary withdrawal symptoms and become de-motivated by many failed attempts.

What happens during a medically assisted drug or alcohol detox?

Medical assessment

The first step in a medically assisted detox is for patients to have a thorough medical assessment of building an accurate picture of their individual needs. During this assessment, an expert will gather information on a patient's medical history and details about their addiction and use this to develop a personalized detox plan.


When the alcohol/drugs in a patient's system is gradually reduced, they will typically begin to experience withdrawal symptoms. The type of withdrawal symptoms, and their severity, depend on how long a person has been addicted to alcohol or drugs, the kind of substance they are addicted to, how much they have been consuming, and their general mental and physical health.

It is important to understand that each person uniquely experiences detox, and each new detox is entirely different, regardless of whether someone has gone through detox previously.

Withdrawal can result in a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms.

Physical withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting

  • Shaking and shivering

  • Sweating

  • Runny nose

  • High temperature and or chills

  • Increased heart rate

  • Increased blood pressure

  • Headaches

  • Abdominal cramps

  • Muscle and bone pain

  • Exhaustion

  • Vivid and unpleasant dreams

Psychological withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Irritability

  • Anxiety

  • Confusion

  • Paranoia

  • Insomnia

  • Depression

  • Agitation

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Extreme mood swings

  • Intense cravings for the substance

The most severe withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Hallucinations

  • Delirium

  • Seizures


To help patients cope with withdrawal, they will be given appropriately controlled medication as part of the detox process. No medication prevents all withdrawal symptoms, but some types of medication can help to ease anxiety and depression, enable sufficient sleep, and counteract as many other problems as possible.

Around the clock support

Research has shown that supportive and compassionate care is as important as medication in enabling successful detox and the best possible outcomes for patients. Therefore, each person going through detox will be carefully monitored, 24 hours a day, for the duration of the process.

How long does detox last?

On average, the detox process typically lasts for between 7 and 10 days. However, this can vary for different people and depends on several factors including:

  • How much alcohol/drugs they have been consuming

  • The severity of their withdrawal symptoms

  • Their physical and mental functioning

Following detox, patients will be ready to progress to an alcohol or drug rehab.

Should you, or a loved one need help getting into recovery, contact us. We can help.

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